At Risk in El Salvador: Lives Clipped by Constant Violence, No Relief in Sight

October 29 2018

This is the daily commute in El Salvador, where raging gang battles brand it the most murderous country in the world. Life on the streets, no matter how mobile, is targeted. Terrified bus commuters avoid eye contact, lest they attract the attention of gang members preying on riders for cellular phones, watches, and wallets. Thugs divide up territory to shakedown businesses – from modest street carts to upscale professional offices. Gangs mark their turf with spray cans, and populated areas are coated in menacing graffiti. Every school, every neighborhood, and every commercial establishment able to afford it, installs high walls, barbed wire, and security guards armed with assault rifles. Donning a police badge or an army uniform is high risk; the chronically underpaid forces are always in the crosshairs. Gangsters expect impunity. Even if victims seeking justice actually make their way through the thicket of threats, they land in El Salvador’s corroded courts, where judges accept bribes and officials extort the public. Intimidation simply overruns the rule of law.

Most Salvadorans aren’t even 20 and have known only risk and violence. Some scramble for jobs in an economy crippled by endless security challenges. But the so-called nini’s, teens to twenty-somethings who neither study nor work, gravitate in great numbers to gangs for purpose and protection. Fear gives gangsters a stranglehold over society. They pluck men, women and children from desperately poor families with the promise of a better life, but add them to their criminal roster for slave day labor and the sex trade. Salvadoran gangs, some 60,000 strong, generate the biggest human trafficking business in the Americas. Grassroots groups push back on forces of terror that the government is just too corrupt to counter. They reach into communities to infuse youth with the skills and the self-esteem to somehow beat the odds. The range of their work addresses the big deficits: nutrition, early childhood development, education and economic engagement for women and girls. While many young Salvadorans believe their future is in the U.S., local organizers acknowledge that it’s hard work to supplant the misery and inertia with productivity and pride.


Want to change the equation? Learn more demographics at IOM. For a look at Salvador’s youth crime, violence and insecurity see OECD. See the scale of El Salvador’s criminal activity and its regional impact in Insight Crime. Help meet urgent needs with on-the-ground organizations. Glasswing International plugs holes in maternal health and early childhood development with hands-on programs in the country’s most poverty-plagued schools, including a robotics program that just produced two world-class competitors. Sequence Collection disrupts the cycle of violence by skilling up and employing young men to create fine artisan accessories, sold in El Salvador and around the world. 

For detailed coverage in Fortune Magazine, read more here and here.